In some of my recent reading on the Revolutionary War, I came across a statement that deeply affected me. It offered me a window into the lived experience of one man and his family in the tumult of those times. It was written by Lieutenant Samuel Cooper in a letter to his wife. Here is the statement.
“The dangers we are to encounter I know not, but it shall never be said to my children: Your father was a coward.” (The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson, page 213)
Lieutenant Cooper wrote these words shortly before beginning the long, cold march through Maine and into Canada. It was there that he would die during the assault on Quebec in 1775 under the command of General Montgomery. It was a dismal, one-sided defeat.
Reading his words reminded me of some important things.
War has always been tragic and always will be
When we consider the warfare of history it is easy for us to remain disconnected. We tend to focus on dates, strategies, and the bigger picture of how a war adjusted the trajectory of our world. We are far enough removed that we sometimes have to work on making it personal. That is why biographies, autobiographies, and letters are important works. They show us these events from the ground level, through the eyes of the people who lived them.
When you read personal writings from historical wartime figures like Lieutenant Cooper you begin to step into the tragic nature of war. I must be honest, after reading this I began questioning things. “Was it really necessary? Did we have to sacrifice the lives of so many on both sides? Was America really on the right side? Maybe America and Britain were guilty in this whole thing.”
These questions popped into my mind because I know the worth of human life. One wonders if breaking free from the monarchy was worth Samuel Cooper's life. War is always tragic and it often blurs the lines between right and wrong.
Every generation needs men who display great courage
Even though war is tragic and muddies the waters of morality, it is inescapable as long as this fallen world persists. As long as there are sinners on the earth, war will be unavoidable and oftentimes necessary. Therefore, we will always need men of courage like Lieutenant Cooper.
His statement expressed the uncertainty of what he was marching into. But it was of great importance that he displayed courage. It was also of great importance that he passed that courage down to his children. Why? I'm sure it had plenty to do with pride. But I would also speculate he knew the impact it would have on them.
Though the loss of their father was certainly devastating, the legacy left by it was sure to be life-changing. Courage can be taught with words, but it is best instilled by example. Boys are most likely to become courageous men from watching courageous fathers. And those boys may need that courage to fight the wars of their times.
Freedom is a dangerous pursuit
Some people would take life over freedom. Others would take freedom over life. As evidenced by Lieutenant Cooper's story, history has rarely given people the option of having both.
When I read stories like this I become profoundly grateful for men like Samuel Cooper who gave everything so I could be among that rare group. I have never had to choose between life and freedom. I have always had both. It came at a great cost, but I didn't have to pay it.
Having said that, it is still important for all of us to ask ourselves which one we would choose. History repeats itself ad nauseam. The time will come again, even for Americans, for us to defend our freedoms against oppressive enemies, whether foreign or domestic. If that happens during my time, I pray my testimony matches Lieutenant Cooper.
“…it shall never be said to my children: Your father was a coward.”